Jesse Bounds explains how street sensors, parking guidance systems, autonomous grocery delivery, smart locking systems and more all contribute toward making us a Smart City. We’re also working to become a Resilient City. And wait ‘til you hear what we’re building for our startups!
Milad: Hi, I’m Milad Khakzadghomi, and this is HXTV, coming to you from Microsoft’s Technology Center here in Houston. Our topic today is Smart Cities, and my guest is the Director of Innovation for the City of Houston, Jesse Bounds. Jesse, welcome to HXTV.
Jesse: Thank you for having me.
Milad: What are Smart Cities?
Jesse: I’ll tell you what a Smart City is. It’s a city that uses data and technology to improve the way that it does business. That’s finding new ways to improve the customer experience, finding ways to improve internal operations, just how governments work – better, faster and cheaper, and also connect citizens with each other and with themselves.
Milad: Why is it important for Houston and why is it our city that’s trying to push this agenda?
Jesse: Houston has always been a leader in human ingenuity from the time that we hopped on the moon, but we are the fourth largest city in the country, and we have big city problems that we need to solve. We have always been a pioneer in data and technology use on our government space. We actually were the first city to adopt smart water meters, Smart Grid, with CenterPoint Energy. TranStar really is a model for transportation innovation and having real time traffic information in a single place.
Milad: So, to let people behind the curtain a little bit, a couple months ago you actually did my first introduction to Smart Cities and kind of helped answer that same question to me the first time around. During that meeting, I remember you kind of breaking it down into four categories of our initiatives and how we’re designing our projects. Can you explain that a little bit about how we think about our projects and also what projects are moving the needle for us?
Jesse: Absolutely. This is all on our website, houstontx.gov/smartcity, but we’re featuring all of the projects that we currently have under deployment right now. Transportation, for example, we’re focused on getting people to where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible, but also preparing for the next generation of transportation. We just launched an autonomous vehicle pilot with METRO and Texas Southern University and Nuro is an autonomous grocery delivery service that’s now operating on Houston streets. Our streets are heavily sensorized with intelligent transportation systems that can deliver real time traffic information to consumers through consumer wayfinding services like Waze and Google Maps, and we also have a lot around parking as well with transportation. That’s parking guidance systems and pay by phone apps; ParkMobile is a big one here in Houston.
Milad: You’re telling me there’s a bunch of sensors around the city that people aren’t normally interacting with or know about, but it’s making our city smarter, and that data is then feeding back to…the Mayor? Where does this go and how do we make decisions off of it?
Jesse: It goes to the city and we make action out of it. It’s all about getting insights from the data and doing something with it. In public safety, for example, we have a variety of cameras and sensors through downtown and throughout the city that are able to detect when gunshots are fired and alert authorities when that happens; or track anomalies when people are gathering, or running in places they are not supposed to be; or wrong way driving. It’s all about situational awareness, and we actually won an international Smart City award through IDC with Microsoft and Aldine Independent School District on the safe building solution for schools, where if there were to be a school shooting, police would be notified immediately with gun shot sensors and a series of smart locking systems and lighting systems would guide folks through to safe passage and isolate the shooter. So, there’s a lot of ways that technology can enhance public safety, situational awareness.
Milad: It seems like Houston has really embraced this, probably more than most cities right now in the United States. One of the things that I’m kind of aware of and am constantly being made more aware of is that there are tons of events, meetings, everything around Smart Cities is happening in Houston right now. For example, there’s an event on July 23rd for HPE to do a Smart Cities IoT discussion and panel, which I think you’ll be at, but why is it that today things are moving so much faster and that we’re accelerating on this topic?
Jesse: The pace of technology is accelerating so much faster, definitely, but also, the Mayor wants the city to lead by example, and this whole development of the technology and innovation ecosystem with Houston Exponential and others, he want’s government to take a lead as well and be more proactive with the use of technology to solve our problems. I think you really start to see people rallying together around that mission, and because of it, I mean, we’re taking a step back to a certain extent right now with the Smart City Advisory Council that Elizabeth Brock from CenterPoint Energy is chairing. This is a group of regional infrastructure owners in the city that are coming together, developing strategy and a more strategic approach for Smart Cities going forward. You know, how do we use data, keep it secure, private, and interoperate with other data sources throughout the city. How do we coordinate this so it’s not just the city of Houston doing this it’s all of our regional partners; Harris County, METRO, CenterPoint, they’re all doing really smart stuff and it’s just a matter of coordinating those resources better.
Milad: I think in talking a little about the strategy and thinking about the future of it, there were some discussions around a different design or a different way of looking at it going forward. Kind of separating ourselves from those four categories and really thinking about resilient cities as a whole. Can you explain that a little bit?
Jesse: Houston has now become the 101st Resilient City out of the 100 Resilient Cities program that is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. We hired Chief Resilience Officer Marissa Aho to lead the strategic plan that will make us a more resilient city.
Milad: What does that mean?
Jesse: It’s a city that can tackle the acute shocks of today: hurricanes, terrorist attacks, whatever the case may be, as well as the long-term stresses that plague the community. We’re thinking that Smart Cities is really going to be the data and technology layer to that Resilient Cities plan, and really go after the problems of today and tomorrow through the Resilient Cities plan.
Milad: What does it mean to the founders, what does it mean to startups that are here trying to innovate, what does it mean to middle-sized market businesses that are trying to build something that could be useful to you? How do they reach out to you?
Jesse: I think that everyone really has a role to play in Smart Cities. Startups, certainly, where they’re developing solutions to our challenges. Microsoft and Intel have partnered with Station Houston and the Ion, TX/RX as well, to develop the Smart City Accelerator that will really create a way for—a pipeline for startups to interact with the city and co-develop solutions with the city and really grow that Smart City solutions from the grassroots.
Milad: What do Smart Cities in Houston look like in the future?
Jesse: We’re just going to continue to increase technology and, really, it will be hopefully a well oiled machine of all of the different regional partners interacting together, in a way that’s open and transparent, in a way that’s strong and robust, and a way that’s impactful for the end citizen.
Milad: Thanks so much for the overview, Jesse. And that wraps up my discussion with the Director of Innovation for the City of Houston, Jesse Bounds. I’m Milad Khakzadghomi, and this is HXTV.
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